From Issue Six of Gear Patrol Magazine.
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If you’re going to buy a watch, there are several aspects worth considering. Movement. Style. Case material. Dial design. But not least of all is watch size, and there’s a bevy of options out there that range from tiny to gargantuan. You could buy a sleek Nomos dress watch that’s 35mm in diameter, a 40mm Rolex GMT, a 44mm Panerai dive watch or, if you really wanted to go big or go home, a 50mm Breitling Avenger. On paper, the millimeters between them might seem minuscule, but on the wrist the differences are striking.
In the grand scheme of the watch industry, this expansive offering of watch sizes is a relatively new phenomenon. “Forty years ago, no one made case sizes over thirty-six millimeters,” says David Lee, Head Curator for Eleven James, a service that leases out luxury watches. “There are a handful of exceptions like the IWC Portuguese and Audemars Piguet Royal Oak, but most were in that thirty-three-to-thirty-six-millimeter range.”
It’s a trend that continued into the ’90s, according to vintage watch retailer Eric Wind. “Even if you go back to the nineties, the standard watch size was still under forty millimeters,” he says. “Amazingly, in the 1980s you saw all these Wall Street and Hollywood guys wearing watches around thirty-two to thirty-three millimeters.”
But soon after, in the late ‘90s and 2000s, watch sizes started to balloon. According to Wind, the rising popularity of gigantic sport watches from Panerai and IWC helped. “I think it could be tied to the rise of Panerai in the late nineties, with Sylvester Stallone and the movie Daylight,” Wind says. He also cites the introduction of the 46mm IWC Big Pilot, widely popular when it was released in 2002, as “another big moment for large watches.”
According to Lee, Rolex played a significant part, too. “Really, the popularity of models like the Submariner or GMT-Master II — those watches are around forty millimeters — caused a bit of a shift in the market, where men once wearing dress and professional watches switched to more sport watches,” he says. “So the case sizes just kind of inched up. That forty-to-forty-two-millimeter range is becoming the standard for a men’s watch.”
And in trying to replicate the success of those larger dive watches, most brands now make dressy timepieces that fit into that 40-to-42mm range. “It’s like they’re trying to make a Submariner, but a Submariner dial is still small because you have to accommodate for the rotating bezel,” Wind says. “So having that surface area with the thin bezel just looks like there’s a dinner plate on your wrist.”
Interestingly enough, more brands have even started offering watches that fall below that 40 to 42mm standard. In Wind’s eyes, this is largely a response to the booming growth of the vintage market. “No question, companies are offering smaller-diameter watches, and thinner watches, to appeal to clients with interest in vintage watches,” he says. “They’re realizing that modern reinterpretations of vintage watches have a compelling story to tell.”
This doesn’t mean big watches are going away soon; it just means we’ve entered an era of unprecedented choice. “I think over the last ten years, there weren’t many options between thirty-six and thirty-eight millimeters that people could go out and buy,” Wind says. “But there will always be people who will want large watches because they feel those watches are too small. The key thing for brands is to have options for both.”
Which leaves buyers the intimidating task of choosing the right-sized watch to spend thousands of dollars on. As a reference, Lee recommends using the space between the top and bottom lugs, which should be shorter than the width of your wrist. “Otherwise part of the watch will be hanging off your wrist, and you’ll hit the edge of your desk, door wells, and it ends up being really uncomfortable and it could actually damage the watch,” he says.
The overall shape of your wrist matters, too. “Some people have flatter wrists that are pretty big, so they could pull off a larger watch, whereas if you have a more cylindrical wrist, you have less surface area to work with,” Wind says.
“You also have to ask yourself is what’s the reason you’re wearing the watch,” he adds. “In my opinion, if you’re wearing a lot of long sleeves or dress shirts, having a little smaller watch is better than having a Big Pilot or something because it’ll fit under the cuff. But if you’re in a t-shirt, it can be okay to wear a bigger watch.”
In the end, though, there’s really no way to tell what works for you until you actually try it on. “It’s a very personal thing, and you can’t tell that unless you experience it,” Lee says. “I tell most people when they see their soul-mate watch, they’ll know. Some sizes just suit certain people better, and it’s hard to tell, but in the end, it’s the kind of thing that just speaks to you.”